Improve Gut Microbiome: Optimal Mitochondrial Energy Production – Part 1

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD


Improve gut microbiome, increase your energyEnergy: it’s what we need to live. Some of the body’s processes, like respiration and digestion, revolve around getting and producing energy for the other processes of life. Every single thing we do, voluntarily or involuntarily, takes energy. If we improve gut microbiome, our energy development increases as well.

Much of the body’s energy – over 90 percent – comes from the mitochondria in cells. So it is vital that they are functioning at optimal levels if you want to have an active, healthy day-to-day life.

One way to ensure high functioning mitochondria is to improve gut microbiome health. Another is to address any weakening in the mitochondria directly, and yet another is to address any medical conditions that may be affecting mitochondrial health.

It’s very important to support the mitochondria’s energy production with diet, lifestyle and special supplementation when needed. Otherwise, the lack of energy will not just affect your activity level; it will affect every single physical and chemical process, from heart function to brain function.

Consider the cardiovascular system at its most basic level. If you have an average heart rate of 72 beats per minute, this adds up to 103,680 beats per day. This much work needs a significant amount of mitochondrial function and energy.

Another example: even though one of the functions of sleep is to conserve energy, many of your bodily processes are still functioning and need energy. Energy conservation only happens during non-REM sleep; the brain wave activity that occurs in REM sleep is actually just as high, or even higher, as brain wave activity during waking hours.

So it goes without saying that energy conservation is not enough to contribute significantly to your body’s energy requirements, and mitochondrial energy production has to perform at a high level even if you do get enough rest or sleep.

What Exactly is a Mitochondrion?

The word mitochondrion, which is singular for mitochondria, comes from the Greek words “mitos” – meaning threads – and “chondrion” – meaning granule.

Mitochondria are one type of organelle (specialized structures that have a specific function within cells) found in eukaryotic cells. Eukaryotic cells are cells that have a nucleus, and other cytoplasmic organelles bound by membranes that separate them from the rest of the cellular space. They also have a cytoskeleton.

Prokaryotic cells on the other hand are cells that do not contain a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles. They were the only form of life on earth until evolutionary processes brought about eukaryotic cells millions of years later. Bacteria are a type of prokaryote.

What makes mitochondria unique in comparison to other cellular organelles is that they have their own DNA separate from that of the cell itself (which is contained in the nucleus). This is thought to have happened due to the process of endosymbiosis – the evolution of the symbiotic relationship of bacteria living within larger cells. The mitochondrial genome has a striking similarity to bacterial genomes.

Further studies have confirmed this might be the case because the mitochondria and a specific type of bacteria called Rickettsia prowazekii seem to share a similar genetic origin, and both of them are incapable of reproduction outside of eukaryotic cells.

This one reason is why, as we will discuss later, mitochondria within the human cells and microbiota, or gut flora, in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract are able to interact and communicate, and why we must improve gut microbiome to support mitochondria.

The GI tract contains 100 trillion microbes and the human body has upwards of 10 times more microbes than cells. The human microbiome, which is the collection of microorganisms, is estimated to have at least 100-fold more genes than the human genome.

There is a lesser accepted theory on the origin of mitochondria which states that they came about by splitting off part of the cell’s DNA from the nucleus and developed membranes around this portion. This is called the autogenous hypothesis.

A mitochondrion has two membranes – an inner membrane and an outer membrane that are separated by what is called an intermembrane space. This space has folds, called cristae, which go all the way into the interior part of the mitochondrion, the matrix. The matrix is where the mitochondrion’s genetic system is located.

Improve Gut Microbiome and Mitochondrial Function

Improve gut microbiome and generate mitochondriaMitochondria have many functions, including energy production, maintaining cell cycle and growth, apoptosis (cell death), regulation of cellular metabolism, steroid synthesis, calcium storage and signaling, signaling through reactive oxygen species, and hormonal signaling.

The most important function they perform is the production of metabolic energy in eukaryotic cells. They break down carbohydrates and fatty acids through the process of oxidative phosphorylation in order to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy currency of life. Much of this process takes place in a mitochondrion’s inner membrane.

More specifically, the process of cellular respiration is where energy is derived from glucose. ATP is the body’s currency for energy. The first step in the process of energy production therefore is changing glucose to pyruvate to produce ATP. With aerobic respiration, which is the type of cellular respiration that occurs in human cells, oxygen is present and the pyruvate then produces more ATP. If there is no oxygen and respiration is anaerobic, no extra ATP is created.

So what happens if the mitochondria are not functioning properly? ATP production is reduced – meaning the energy needed for all of the body’s processes is reduced. That can become quite a challenging situation for health and wellness.

This reduction in mitochondrial energy production sometimes results in, or is termed as, mitochondrial disease – a set of different diseases that fall under that umbrella term, including conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, autism, muscular dystrophy and chronic fatigue.

In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction, or the subclinical state of mitochondrial weakness, has been associated with many seemingly unrelated conditions such as diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disorders, thyroid problems, extracellular matrix congestion, cognitive issues, liver sluggishness, and adrenal fatigue. The reason is simple. All cellular function requires energy. Poor energy production equals poor energy state, a common denominator in practically all chronic diseases – including those mentioned above.

Here’s the question that comes next: if the tissue of the organs affected by a certain condition is given specialized therapy, will that therapy also support the mitochondria within the cells of that tissue?

Or do we need to support the mitochondria throughout the entire system so that tissue responds better to therapy?

The answer is yes to both questions. It seems to be that supporting overall mitochondrial function will have an impact on whatever condition you’re dealing with, and by addressing whatever condition you’re dealing with, you will also support mitochondrial function.

It can be a little difficult to differentiate between all these different conditions and mitochondrial dysfunction in order to take the right steps. However, there is one thing that you can count on that will have an effect in all cases – the state of the gut’s microbiome. If you improve gut microbiome health and function, you will improve all of these issues, including problems on the mitochondrial level.

That is because if the microbiome is not in an optimal state, you’re not absorbing the nutrients that you need for mitochondrial ATP production, meaning you don’t have the fuel for your tissues to be healthy and strong. Also, there will be an imbalance of gut metabolites and inflammatory substances that negatively impact the mitochondria.

Now let’s talk about another important mitochondrial function: steroid synthesis and hormonal signaling. If these are affected, they can trigger a number of conditions, including adrenal fatigue.

Mitochondria and Cortisol Production

Improve gut microbiome and cortisolThe inner membrane of the mitochondrion contains the enzyme cytochrome P450. One subset of this enzyme is responsible for the synthesis of steroid hormones by the adrenal glands, the gonads (male testes and female ovaries) and peripheral tissue.

This subset of cytochrome P450 acts on the hormonal cascade that synthesizes the adrenal hormones – starting with cholesterol that is converted into pregnenolone, which is then converted into DHEA, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and cortisol.

Cortisol is the body’s main anti-stress hormone. Along with 50 other types of hormones, it is produced by the adrenal glands, which are two organs found on top of the kidneys that are part of the body’s endocrine system.

The adrenals are the last link in the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is part of the hormonal circuit of the body’s global stress-response system – the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.

Cortisol has many important functions, including regulating blood pressure and blood sugar levels, maintaining heart and blood vessel function, suppressing the immune system and neutralizing inflammation – all of which are affected by, and respond to, stress. Although it is natural for the body to handle stress with a series of stress responses, it is not built to do so for severe or prolonged states of stress. If you improve gut microbiome health and function, you will improve coritisol production as well.

Chronic stress can dysregulate the adrenal glands and affect cortisol production, causing Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). The usual trajectory of AFS is that in the beginning stages, cortisol output increases and then when the adrenal glands are exhausted at the later stages, cortisol output drops significantly.

Each of the four stages of AFS is marked by a collection of symptoms, though throughout, fatigue is the major theme. Symptoms range from the mild to the severe and can include things like easily gaining weight and difficulty losing it, difficulty falling asleep and difficulty rising in the morning, hypoglycemia, brain fog, food sensitivities, irritable bowel, lowered immunity, low libido, PMS, fertility problems, anxiety, heart palpitations, mild depression and others.

But we’re not talking only about mental or emotional stress here. Health problems can cause AFS, and mitochondria that are not functioning properly are one example.

Mitochondrial Disease and Adrenal Fatigue

Heal adrenal fatigue and improve gut microbiomeCytochrome P450 resides in the inner membrane of the mitochondria. So when there is a problem there, adrenal hormone production is directly affected. Not having enough cortisol, AFS symptoms can develop.

But it’s a little more than that…

Symptoms of mitochondrial disease and AFS are similar, but the causal factors of the fatigue in both conditions are different. Dysfunction in ATP production will of course lead to fatigue, as there isn’t enough life energy for the body to function optimally.

With AFS, there isn’t enough of the hormone that neutralizes stress and the body has to downgrade some of its functions in an effort to conserve energy. That also leads to a lessening of ATP and a state of fatigue.

On a larger scale, the adrenal glands and cortisol are only one part of the NEM stress response. The NEM is composed of six circuits that work together to neutralize stress and the damage it causes the body. They are the neuroaffective, the cardionomic, the hormone, the metabolism, the inflammation and the detoxification responses.

These circuits can also dysregulate if stress is chronic, or if there isn’t enough mitochondrial ATP, or if there is a medical condition that is not addressed. Thankfully, if we improve gut microbiome, all of these elements, along with the mitochondria, will function better.

Read Part 2 | Part 3

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The gut’s microbiome has been implicated in almost every physical health condition, as well as a few psychological conditions as well. That is why it is paramount to improve gut microbiome balance if you want to lead a healthy, active and disease free life.


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